WHEELING - West Virginia legislators refused to lower the annual $2.5 million table gambling fee this year, but the roulette wheels will keep spinning at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.
"Are we still losing money, yes. But my goal is to be as aggressive as possible to not lose that $1 million this year," said Osi Imomoh, president and general manager of the Wheeling track, which also offers 1,600 slot machines. "I know some will say we were just trying to get a deal on our fees, but we do need some relief in the long term. We need a new strategy for, not just Wheeling Island, but for all the casinos in the West Virginia."
Earlier this year, former Wheeling track President and General Manager Jim Simms, who has since taken a job with a new Delaware North casino in Southwest Ohio, said the Wheeling facility might not renew its table gambling license in July. He cited the projected $1 million operating loss, in addition to the annual $2.5 million fee to continue running blackjack, poker, roulette and other table games. Both Simms and Imomoh said more than 100 track workers' jobs are tied directly to table gambling.
The still heavily Democrat-controlled West Virginia Senate subsequently passed legislation by a 23-10 vote, with one member failing to cast a vote, that would have lowered the annual table gambling fee from $2.5 to $1.5 million for the Wheeling track, as well as for Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in Chester, the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel near Charleston and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the state's Eastern Panhandle.
However, leadership in the House of Delegates - which includes 46 Republicans among its 100 members - did not believe this bill had any chance of passing out of that chamber, so it never came up for a vote.
"I understand some people in this state don't like gambling, but they sure like the jobs we provide," Imomoh said.
The new license will be in effect until July 2014, which Imomoh hopes will give legislators another chance to look at the problem.
"We are confident that legislative leaders recognize this is a serious problem, and it is our hope that the issue will be studied in depth prior to the next legislative session. A long-term solution remains our No. 1 priority," said Imomoh.
In addition to the $2.5 million annual fee, the tax on table games in West Virginia is 35 percent. Pennsylvania has only a 16 percent table games tax, while Ohio has a 33 percent table games tax with no annual fee.
State Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, has said he would like to see a system of taxation that is based more on the volume of business at each of the Mountain State's four casinos.
West Virginia Lottery Commission records show that not all tracks are pulling in similar dollar amounts. Wheeling Island generated about $5.3 million worth of revenue from table gambling from July 1 through the end of February. During the same time period, the Charles Town track saw about $104.7 million from table gambling - nearly 20 times as much as the Wheeling facility. Yet, both Wheeling and Charles Town must pay the same $2.5 million fee.
In the face of growing competition from both Pennsylvania and Ohio, Imomoh said the Wheeling track cannot take many more losses.
"We have people on the ground who have livelihoods. We need to keep our operations viable," he said of the approximately 650 total Wheeling Island employees.
Imomoh also said the track is working with the commission to use some "automated table games" that he said simulate the experience of table gambling, though he did not know for sure when these machines would debut. He emphasized the use of these machines would not result in the loss of employees.
Simms noted in recent months that he believed Wheeling Island's oldest form of gambling, greyhound racing, is a declining industry. Imomoh said while the dog racing business is down, officials are striving to keep the operation viable.
John Musgrave, director of the lottery commission, said he was glad the Wheeling track has decided to continue with table gambling.
"The $10 million ($2.5 million from each of the four racetracks) goes directly to in-home health care for our senior citizens, so that is vitally important," Musgrave said. "I think they (Wheeling Island officials) realized they would be at a competitive disadvantage if they eliminated table games."
"It is a lot easier to keep them going than to do away with them now and try to start over in a few years," Imomoh said of the games.